LOS ANGELES- While there exists very little more important the points in the skintight Western Conference standings, the health of key players may top the list.
The Los Angeles Kings lost their leading scorer and most significant defensive forward Anze Kopitar for a minimum of six weeks after he fractured his ankle during an awkward fall. The injury certainly dampened the enthusiasm from their convincing 4-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche at Staples Center Saturday.
“He’s a point-per-game player, he’s a great player. He’s huge, he plays a lot of minutes, P.K., power play, you know, he plays it all,” said left winger Ryan Smyth. “It’s tough to replace a guy like that but collectively we can all step up if that’s the case.”
Smyth ensured a solid response against the Avalanche, who cut the L.A. lead to one goal shortly after Kopitar’s injury. Smyth had a goal, a takeaway and an assist in quick succession to seal the victory for Los Angeles against his former teammates from Colorado.
Already missing their second-leading scorer Justin Williams with a separated shoulder, the Kings will now have to start overturning stones to find goals.
Their primary call-up option Andrei Loktionov is out for the season in Manchester following shoulder surgery. Meanwhile, their top-tier prospect Brayden Schenn remains ineligible to play in the NHL after he was returned to the major junior Western Hockey League earlier this season.
Kopitar sits tied for eighth among all NHL players in scoring. His 73 points in 75 games means that he will fall a hair short of becoming the Kings’ first point-per-game scorer since Ziggy Palffy in 2002-2003. The Kings cornerstone pivot Kopitar registered 81 points in 82 games last season.
His loss may mean an even greater reliance on a stout, deep defense as well as the goaltending tandem of Jonathan Quick and his backup Jonathan Bernier.
“Our D is probably the staple of our game, it has been since (Head Coach) Terry (Murray) got here,” said the Kings’ captain Dustin Brown.
Quick stopped 20 of 21 shots as he added another one-goal-against win to his resume as a candidate for this year’s Vezina Trophy.
Los Angeles opened the scoring as a trio of big bodies combined on a goal. Kopitar set up Willie Mitchell’s blast from the blue line through a Dustin Penner screen that was the period’s only even-strength goal.
Though Ray Bourque may have little cause for concern, the goal was Mitchell’s second in as many games and his fifth overall, marking the second straight season in which he has set a career high in goals. He had four last year with Vancouver in a campaign truncated by a concussion.
Late in the frame, a power-play goal gave the Kings some breathing room. Brown and Michal Handzus created confusion at the blue line, leaving Handzus open behind the defense. Brown sent a precise pass to Handzus, who cashed in confidently.
“I just criss-crossed, got onside, I kind of slowed up, he kind of slowed up with me and I just found him sliding through,” Brown said.
A smooth give-and-go exchange between Brown and Smyth nearly netted a redirection goal for Brown, who was stonewalled by the left pad of Budaj.
The slick offensive play continued for Los Angeles. During a power play they switched positions and points of attack with aplomb. Particularly active was defenseman Jack Johnson, who double-shifted and covered four different positions during the course of the two-minute advantage.
Kopitar’s injury occurred late in the period as he battled Ryan O’Bryne for a puck along the left-wing boards. Kopitar fell backward as his right leg contorted unnaturally. He writhed in agony on the ice initially, a rare vulnerable moment for the Kings’ collected, two-way stalwart Kopitar.
Kopitar left the ice with the help of trainer Chris Kingsley, Handzus and Penner.
Los Angeles also sustained a blow on the scoreboard moments later. Drew Doughty lost his footing behind the L.A. net and his labored clearing attempt was stolen in front by Avs center Paul Stastny, who hit Milan Hejduk for a tap-in tally. Colorado entered the second intermission with their deficit halved to a single goal.
It was the veteran Hejduk’s 20th goal on the season. He declined to be dealt to a contender at the trade deadline, opting to continue with Colorado where he has spent his entire 902-game career.
“He’s a guy that is very dependable and you know what you’re going to get out of Milan just about every night. That’s why he’s been the professional that he’s been and had the career that he’s had so far,” said Colorado Head Coach Joe Sacco.
Smyth pushed the lead back to a pair when he absolutely schooled Jonas Holos behind the net, pivoting off the overaggressive defender Holos and stuffing the puck home on his backhand.
It was the veteran Smyth’s first goal in 15 games and second goal in 25 contests, as well as his 21st of the season.
“It’s a relief. It’s nice to contribute and feel a part for sure,” said Smyth. “It’s a matter of being in the right positions and don’t ride your highs too high or your lows too low and you have stay an even keel. I thought it was a tough stretch but it’s nice to contribute.”
Trevor Lewis set up the Smyth goal and he had the favor returned when Smyth hit him with a well-timed pass for an easy finish to a two-on-one break. The 4-1 lead was the death knell for Colorado, whose woes persisted at the hands of the former Av Smyth following his neutral-zone takeaway to key the odd-man rush.
“They’re in a tough position right now, out of the playoff race. They’re battling hard, they went through a lot of injuries throughout the year,” said Smyth. “You’ve got to give them credit, they’ve got character over there and I’m sure they’ll rebound for next year.”
As for the Kings, they now have their own injury woes to battle through at a critical point in a competitive season after losing Williams against the Calgary Flames and now Kopitar in this contest.
“He’s your top player, your top forward so there’s quite a hole that’s going to be there with him out of the lineup for this length of time,” Kings Head Coach Terry Murray said.
“I’ve dealt with this before with top guys being out with injuries and it’s an opportunity for other players to step up, the character of the team needs to step up and everyone needs to start doing the right things. You’ve got to trust your structure and your system and give it the best opportunity you can as a group to finish games off and play the right way.”